April 8, 2014 at 11:46 am

Retired nurse gets mob in Detroit to back off, stop beating driver

Deborah Hughes rushed from her home to help the boy and, then, the driver. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Detroit — Deborah Hughes stood up to a ferocious mob and possibly saved a man’s life.

The retired nurse said Monday she didn’t hesitate when she saw a group of men savagely beating Steven Utash last week, after he got out of his pickup on the city’s east side to check on a 10-year-old boy he had hit with his vehicle.

“Nothing was really going through my head, other than ‘They need to stop beating this man,’ ” said Hughes, 56.

The incident started about 4:10 p.m., when Utash, a tree trimmer, accidently struck 10-year-old David Harris near Morang and McKinney. Hughes, who lives across the street, said events unfolded quickly.

“I looked out the window and saw that the boy had been hit, so I threw on my coat and ran out there,” said Hughes, who is retired from the St. James Nursing Center in Detroit.

Hughes also made sure to pack her .38 caliber pistol. “You have to carry a gun around here,” she said. “This neighborhood is terrible. I don’t walk around without my gun.

“I saw the boy all by himself, crying,” Hughes said. “His father was in the store. He came out, and I told him, ‘I’m a nurse; don’t touch him. Let him lay there.’ The baby was crying so hard, and I talked to him and tried to calm him down.

“About that time, I saw (Utash) get out of his truck; he came running up saying, ‘Oh, my God, tell me he’s all right. Please tell me he’s all right.’ He was hysterical.”

The crowd that had gathered suddenly attacked Utash, Hughes said.

“He was screaming, and they were beating him, and kicking him,” she said.

Although police on Monday said they’re expanding their investigation to include the possibility that the attack was a hate crime, Hughes said she didn’t see anything to suggest that.

“I didn’t hear anything racial, but it’s hard to tell everything that was being said because people were all yelling at the same time. I know some people were screaming, ‘You hit my cousin,’ and ‘You hit my nephew,’ but I didn’t hear anyone say ‘You white so-and-so’ or anything like that.”

Hughes said she ran toward the mob to try to intervene.

“I said ‘Please don’t hit him anymore,’ and they backed up. Everybody cleared the way and gave me room to work on him. Nobody cussed me; they didn’t attack me. They just let me do what I needed to do.

“I massaged (Utash’s) neck, and got his circulation going. He woke up and started swinging and kicking. By this time, the EMS came, and me and the EMS driver tied him down and put him in the ambulance.”

University of Detroit-Mercy criminal justice professor Mike Witkowski said it doesn’t take much to ignite a crowd — or de-escalate a violent situation.

“All it takes is one person to say ‘Get him,’ and a few follow along, and then there’s a belief by the rest of the crowd that it’s their duty to participate and exact revenge for some perceived injustice or perceived wrong,” Witkowski said.

“In situations like this, you just need someone to act as a peacemaker. For something like this to occur, you need a suitable victim, motivated offenders, and an absence of guardianship, where there’s no one around to intervene. Luckily, this woman was there to act as a guardian in that triangle, and she quite possibly saved this man’s life.”

Hughes shrugged off claims that she’s a hero.

“You just have to do the right thing,” she said.

ghunter@detroitnews.com
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